Boston's Approach to Energy Technology and Innovation (Q3 2018)

- Michael Ramsey, AEG Fellow

Advanced Energy Group’s Boston chapter is approaching its one year anniversary with the upcoming Q3 Series on IoT, Innovation, and Technology. Past Boston AEG series have had spectacular turnout with a highly-engaged stakeholder audience, and this series should be no exception. Boston is at the top of the charts for National Clean Tech Leadership, primarily derived from its ability to innovate and its access to a high-quality workforce. AEG brings these elements together and facilitates actionable progress for stakeholders as they explore current opportunities and challenges of the energy system.

MIT: Smart Grid Essentials

In 2017, MIT prepared a report called The Utility of the Future, which provided very thoughtful recommendations for designing and building the future energy system. Primary recommendations of note include:

  • Enabling rapid and dynamic two-way flows of energy between producers and consumers;

  • Ensuring access to granular information on energy consumption, production, and timing;

  • Ubiquitous Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI).

Of particular note is AMI, also known as Smart Meters and considered the foundation for a smart grid. AMIs provide real-time granular information to distribution operators, which enable them to promptly respond to outages, improve stability and efficiency, and create a dynamic transactive energy market. The MIT elaborated on this by claiming that without AMI:

“... It is impossible to meaningfully develop a comprehensive system of prices and charges and accurately meter, compensate and charge a diversity of electricity resources.”

Eversource Grid Modernization Plan

Despite Boston’s great ability to innovate, there is no clear and specific policy for developing a Smart Grid. For the most part, Massachusetts has historically been in the bottom ranks of AMI deployment. The closest related initiative is the Grid Modernization Plan which the DPU required utilities to provide in 2013. This required utilities to include a strategy for effective smart meter implementation.

Recently, the DPU made the final order on a utility Rate Case related to the Grid Modernization plan: utilities have been permitted to spend $220 million in grid modernization upgrades over the next 3 years. Most of this spending will be directed towards increasing T&D operations to improve resiliency and to better integrate renewables, batteries, and EV charging stations. This past winter’s series of Noreaster’s and subsequent power outages have been cited as the motivating force behind emphasizing more resiliency and reliability investments for the area.

As for the AMI plan, the DPU agreed with Eversource’s suggested plan, which is that the business case is too weak to mass-implement AMI in the near future and should be postponed. Their reasons on this claim are primarily that:

  • Installed rudimentary AMR meters already deliver a large portion of the benefits of meters, and have not ended their useful life;

  • Current changes in the Boston energy market (Community Aggregation) make it unlikely that AMI will result in effective investments.

The plan is for Eversource to have an opt-in program for consumers who want AMI, and the DPU intends to conduct stakeholder engagements and to investigate in implementation strategies - as simply installing smart grid infrastructure is not enough. To obtain the intended value of AMI, specific grid applications must be targeted, which requires well-planned market mechanisms. Critics claim this weak business case is not justified based on other utility experiences. Meanwhile, utilities in other states are continuing to install millions of AMI.  

This is another example of the consensus that is demonstrated consistently at AEG series: there isn’t a technology issue, but instead, weak regulatory and financial cases that hinder the mass-implementation of critical clean technology. In this case, deciding not to implement AMI may be a justified capital investment decision in the short-term, but it could potentially bring the advancement of Boston’s smart grid to a halt.

The balancing act of meeting today’s needs while ensuring future needs are met is no easy task. To navigate these complex yet critical topics, AEG’s founder H.G. Chissell will facilitate the conversation and Discussion Leaders will include:

  • Carlos Nouel, VP of New Energy Solutions, National Grid

  • Galen Nelson, Senior Director, Massachusetts Clean Energy Center

  • David Funk, Senior Manager, Enel X

  • Joe Christo, Program Director, Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanism

Please join us this September as we explore Boston’s unique ability to innovate, and the opportunities and challenges it faces in the development of its Smart Grid.

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